How to be a better boss

Professor Zahir Irani gives his top nine tips on how senior managers can be better leaders. 

A common mistake among senior managers is overconfidence, a great belief in their own title and that their experience and status means they’re going to be right, most if not all the time. Despite all their personal qualities and capability in the role, they risk becoming perceived as a ‘bad boss.’

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All the evidence confirms what you’d expect to result from this situation. Rather than poor pay and benefits, it’s more likely to be bad bosses that correlate with lower satisfaction, engagement and commitment. There is a link to higher levels of stress and poor performance.

Researchers from the Harvard Business School and Stanford University meta-analysed the results of more than 200 studies to better understand the effects of stress in the workplace.

They found that worrying about losing your job makes you 50 per cent more likely to experience poor health and is worse for your health than passive smoking. It also found that an demanding job makes you 35 per cent more likely to have a physical illness.

As a leader, you need to be equipped with a whole host of tools, approaches and perspectives to succeed (and to allow others to succeed), not only to do your job to the best of your abilities, but also to protect yourself in an increasingly litigious world. It’s the small details of manner and behaviour and the language used that makes important differences in how you are perceived by your staff and how they respond and engage with you. This impact trickles down and across the organisation does make a big difference.

Here are nine tips to think about when it comes to reflecting on how to be a better boss.

1. There are always at least two sides of any story

You will no doubt be confronted at some time with a member of the team who’s pushing a view that’s contrary to your own. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. Always keep yourself open to different perspectives and the potential of what you might learn from them or, how you make it a learning experience for others.

2. Make yourself approachable and available

You may not always be able to see your staff or colleagues when they want or for as long as they want, but try to ensure people feel that they can at least approach you. If they need a ‘quick word’ with you, make sure you will are always able to genuinely listen, give your full attention and not be distracted by ‘more important’ matters. Never ask people how they are feeling unless you are prepared to listen to what follows.

3. Know your staff and colleagues

Make sure that you don’t have so many direct reports that the relationship with any individual becomes stretched and impersonal. Try to pick up a good understanding of both what taxes your colleagues, and also what makes them excited and pushes their buttons in terms of engagement. Knowing this will help you motivate and learn how to get the very best from them and when to get it.

4. Never use seniority or force to stress your point

Raising your voice doesn’t increase the power of your argument and might make you sound aggressive and unapproachable. Instead use logic, reasoning and persuasive charm to emphaise your point. Just be aware and careful to ensure you’re not being played or manipulated as no matter how smart you think you are, there are always going to be people much smarter than you. 

5. Surround yourself with better people

Know what you are good at and use it to your advantage. But also keep in mind and be honest with yourself about what you’re not so good at. With this knowledge you’ll be able to surround yourself with people that can help fill the gaps, develop and advise you. Have the humility to recognise when and where you struggle and have the right kind of coach who can help you learn about yourself; this will also help when it comes to future career moves.

6. Avoid negatives and false starts

Try not to use language like “I probably shouldn’t say this but ….” or “off the record, we have a problem with….” This sort of language confuses people and make them doubt your moral compass and whether you’re sincere, and what are you saying about them when they are not around? It may also land you in trouble, as if you knew there were issues then why didn’t you intervene or if you know you shouldn’t say something then don’t!

7. Learn from others and challenge yourself

A leader assembles winning teams, meaning they should always be able to learn from their team members. Don’t see this as a weakness but a strength. Accept that you will only change yourself if you challenge yourself. But prepared for successes and don’t be dissuaded by failures.

8. Learn to forgive others

We are all on a journey and with success will come failure and by failing we learn. So while failure needs to be treated as such for there to be clarity for line reports, try not to massively stigmatise it. It’s about setting the right tone. Use it positively by highlighting how everyone can draw on failure to learn and become stronger in one area or another. This way failures become an opportunity to instil a greater sense of confidence in your team that there’s reasonable understanding and they’re not going to be a pariah and everyone’s contributing to a culture of mutual support and encouragement. There may be occasions when you’ll appreciate a level of forgiveness as much as a junior member of staff would.

9. Make Hierarchy work for you and not against

The Civil Service is renowned for its structures and regimented processes. But use these to network and broaden your contact base, regularly present yourself in front of those that you aspire. But remember it works two ways, so being approachable and available to others will create the kind of social capital that you can use to exercise benefit for all and create that personal brand that will progress you forward.

Professor Zahir Irani, Dean (elect), Faculty of Management and Law, University of Bradford, contact him on Twitter @ZahirIrani1


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